Archive for September, 2010

Happy Birthday, You’re Fired

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

The deathwatch for this city’s immortal mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, had been on for weeks. Since early September, Luzhkov has been the focus of a vicious Kremlin smear campaign intended to irritate him into resigning quietly, something the Kremlin is usually able to accomplish with ease. This time, however, it met with unexpected resistance. Last week, Luzhkov went on vacation to Austria, a trip insiders said had been the product of an ultimatum: Take a week to think over the terms, Luzhkov was told; resign when you come back. All of Moscow waited for his resignation, which Kremlin sources told the papers would come on Monday. But when Luzhkov returned Sunday night, he was defiant. This was all “delirium,” he told the Interfax news agency on Monday morning. “I do not plan to resign of my own volition,” he said, and went on with his work.

On Tuesday, however, Moscow awoke to find that the man who was appointed to rule it in 1992, who had been able to hold on to the seat ever since through chaotic political change and economic cataclysms, had not survived the night. He had been brutally, cruelly fired all the way from China, where President Dmitry Medvedev was traveling on official presidential business. Shortly before 8 a.m., Medvedev’s order to remove Luzhkov from his post hit the wires. The reason? Luzhkov had “exhausted the trust of the president of the Russian Federation.” Then Medvedev got up on a podium and calmly delivered a speech to his audience in Shanghai on, of all things, the importance of cities. Back in Moscow, a joke went viral: Everything is made in China nowadays, even Luzhkov’s termination.

Luzhkov, too, woke up to the news, which he learned through the press just like everyone else. He had just arrived at his office and all his colleagues had lined up with gifts and flowers to belatedly congratulate the mayor on his 74th birthday. Most of them did not yet know that the mayor was no longer the mayor. When they found out, many were stunned. “I haven’t seen such faces in a long time,” tweeted one Kremlin-affiliated blogger who stopped by the mayor’s office that morning. “It feels as if the world has ended.” “It shocked him, of course,” one of the mayor’s subordinates told me, adding that the choice of tactics was because “they wanted to hurt him more, to humiliate him.” As if to rub salt into the wound, the president elaborated through a spokesman that he would not be meeting with Luzhkov.

Humiliation was precisely the point of this entire drama. As the initial shock of Luzhkov’s firing wears off, the attention of Moscow’s commentariat (as well as the opposition) has turned back to its favorite question: What does this mean for the Medvedev-Putin duumvirate? Most voices have been praising Medvedev for proving his independence from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the man thought to be the real decider in this town. The theory goes that Medvedev wanted Luzhkov out but Putin wanted him to stay, causing a split behind the scenes. The fact that Luzhkov was fired, according to this school of thought, indicated that Medvedev won and Putin lost. “[Medvedev] showed his political independence,” says political analyst Alexei Makarkin. “Medvedev wants to be president, so he makes a decision that is associated with a president. This is an election campaign, a clear declaration that he wants to be president after 2012.”

But that explanation makes little sense, as does any that treats the presidency as a real contest between Medvedev and Putin, or a perceived split between the two as something other than political theater. As any government operative here will tell you without blushing, those assumptions are both patently false. “It’s clear how the system works,” one high-ranking state banker told me. “Putin is the number one boss, and Medvedev is the place holder. There is no doubt about their roles.”

Moreover, the popular theory that Medvedev wanted Luzhkov out and Putin didn’t is merely wishful thinking. Yes, Medvedev publicly snubbed Luzhkov on his birthday last week, declining to congratulate the mayor (though his wife did), while Putin sent the mayor a birthday telegram calling him “an experienced and competent professional.” But Putin is not known for his sincerity, something his spokesman has confirmed, informing the press that Luzhkov was merely receiving a template telegram sent to all high-level bosses on their birthdays. Its leak was most likely Luzhkov’s doing: the sort of divisive stunt — attempting to show air between the terrible twosome — that lined the mayor up for public execution in the first place. “In our Russian bureaucracy, trying to split the tandem is the deadly sin,” says Aleksey Chadaev, the young new head of United Russia’s political strategy.

Instead, Putin determined that Luzhkov needed to go and sent in Medvedev to do the dirty work, a move that not only knocks out a powerful rival but leaves his hands unsoiled in what has become a bloody fight. “Putin wanted to stay in the shadows on this one, and he won by doing so,” a highly placed United Russia official told me. “Luzhkov was made into a cautionary tale; he was rather publicly and shamefully trampled. The elites surely won’t love Medvedev for this, and it will be hard for him to win back their love.”

The firing also acts as a shot across the bow to Moscow’s elite. Luzhkov’s downfall has been greeted with nearly unanimous hoots of joy in Moscow and the blogosphere across the entire strange range of the Russian political spectrum. Its target, however, was actually the elites and the vast Sopranos-like groupings that have long fed out of Luzhkov’s overflowing coffers. Those elites, who have relaxed a bit under the thaw-with-a-Medvedev-face, had to be shown that you don’t talk back to the Kremlin and that the Kremlin is never, ever wrong.

And Luzhkov had to be made an example of. He had long had his own wealthy political base — turf that he physically shared with the Kremlin. As long as he toed the state’s line, he was allowed to keep a sizable portion of the loot. But as soon as he publicly contradicted the Kremlin, it had to respond with force. Matters got worse after the decision was made for him to leave. Luzhkov, with a measure of foolhardy, suicidal confidence, pushed back in a battle he never could have won. His newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, published editorials defending him; he made a counterattack to the TV “exposés” about him (which never aired for “technical reasons”). He repeatedly, publicly denied that he was resigning.

Luzhkov’s Monday refusal was the final straw. As Natalia Timakova, Medvedev’s spokeswoman, explained to reporters on Tuesday, Luzhkov “took a weeklong vacation — which was signed off on by the president’s administration — in order to think over how he would act next.” There are two ways for a regional boss to leave his post before his term is up, Timakova explained: either by his own will, or the harsher will of the president. “You can draw your own conclusions,” she added.

And indeed, Luzhkov came back and publicly flaunted the understanding he had reached with the Kremlin. “Everyone was just waiting for when he would resign,” the United Russia official said. “Everyone, including people in Medvedev’s circle, hoped that they would be able to reach some agreement, that Luzhkov would not stand on principle. But he did.” Apparently, Luzhkov was simply bargaining for more time — “He wanted to go in November so he wouldn’t be seen as leaving because of the media scandal,” another United Russia member told me. “But they demanded he leave now.”

No matter how harmless or trivial Luzhkov’s counterdemand, he misread the Kremlin’s mood, and the response was instantaneous: Medvedev fired him from China, without even waiting one more day to do it from Moscow. The lesson was clear: You will not publicly humiliate the Kremlin. (That’s something it does well enough on its own.)

The message registered very, very quickly. Luzhkov was roundly criticized in the press, and every prominent political figure gloated and cheered. The populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a longtime Luzhkov foe, declared, “This is my happiest day in 20 years!” A journalist in Moscow had a hard time finding anyone to say anything positive about the ex-mayor, though just a month ago people were afraid to say anything negative about Luzhkov or his wife for fear of an unwinnable libel suit. “It’s like the purges,” the journalist told me. “No one wants his stain on them.” Even the usually cautious politician Anatoly Chubais struggled with the stampede to renounce all ties with Luzhkov, with whom he worked to implement political reforms after the fall of the Soviet Union. “I have one human rule,” he told reporters. “About people who are leaving, [you can say] either good things or nothing at all. And I’ve stuck to that in politics, which is why I simply have nothing to say.”

Only Luzhkov had something to say, which he said in a three-page rant he asked the head of the president’s administration to deliver to Medvedev on Monday night. After he was fired, he decided that now was certainly not the time to go quietly into the rainy night, and leaked it to the opposition press. The letter confirmed everyone’s suspicions — an offer had been made that could not be refused. Luzhkov also — again suicidally, as there is now talk of criminal charges — berated Medvedev for not delivering on promises for democracy. He compared Medvedev’s quote vis-à-vis the mayor’s firing, “Whoever is not in agreement can join the opposition,” to Stalin’s signature phrase, “Whoever is not with us is against us.” “The more important thing,” Luzhkov wrote, “is that, in our country, there is a fear to express one’s opinion since ’37,” referring to Stalin’s Terror. Luzhkov then compared himself to two hallowed Soviet dissidents, the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya. This from a man expert at crushing protests and muzzling the press.

All this showed that fears about the Luzhkov crook machine turning on the Kremlin out of loyalty to the mayor were unfounded: There is no loyalty in Russian politics, only self-preservation. In fact, Vladimir Resin, one of Luzhkov’s deputies and, according to businessmen who have worked with him, one of the most corrupt men in the mayor’s constellation, was named Luzhkov’s successor. He did not protest. (Tellingly, the only person to protest Luzhkov’s dismissal was Iosif Kobzon, Russia’s Frank Sinatra, with all the purported mob links but none of the talent. After he was seen leaving the mayor’s office with a sad Luzhkov in the rain, Kobzon vented his sense of injustice: “You cannot commandeer the fate of a great government figure, of which [Luzhkov] is one, just like that!” he said in a rather tone-deaf statement.)

Toward evening, as Luzhkov’s aides cleared his stuff out of his office, Putin finally emerged from his silence. His work done for him, he expressed approval of Medvedev’s quick action. “Yuri Mikhailovich [Luzhkov] did a lot for Moscow’s development,” he told journalists who followed him to the northern republic of Komi. “But it is perfectly obvious that the relationship of the Moscow mayor and the president didn’t work out, but the mayor remains the subordinate of the president, and not the other way around. That’s why steps should have been taken in a timely manner to normalize the situation.” As for that law that allows the president to fire the Lord of Moscow with the stroke of a pen? “Your humble servant was the author of that law,” he said, humbly.

Happy Birthday, You’re Fired [FP]

Garage Mechanics

Monday, September 27th, 2010

On a windy, sun-soaked afternoon in June, Dasha Zhukova stood on the terrace of the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, an arts venue she founded in Moscow two years ago. Such are the demands on her time that it was the first opportunity she’d had to see the terrace. Wearing a diaphanous summer dress and teetering on high-heeled sandals, she surveyed the wicker couches and the white linen umbrellas flapping in the breeze. Zhukova shivered and folded her arms. Next to her stood Roxane Chatounovski, a stocky woman in her thirties with several large tattoos; she runs the Garage, and was eager to show her boss the work completed in her absence. “There’s a feeling that the sea is over there,” Chatounovski said, with a gesture that vaguely implied the breeze and the umbrellas. The comment hung unpromisingly in the air: Moscow is four hundred miles from the sea. But Zhukova seemed not to hear. She had just flown in from Art Basel, in Switzerland, an art fair that she doesn’t particularly like but, as a collector, attends religiously. Her time was limited.

In the Western press, Zhukova is best known as the girlfriend of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil billionaire, who is the world’s fiftieth-richest man, according to Forbes, and has extremely close ties to the Kremlin leadership. But in Russia Zhukova, who is twenty-nine, has cultivated a role of her own. She founded the Garage as a kind of Russian Kunsthalle, a space that hosts temporary exhibits rather than having a permanent collection of its own. The Garage has introduced important contemporary art— by artists like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami—to a Russian audience that still associates the term “contemporary” with Picasso. It quickly became clear that Zhukova had hit on something bigger than even she ex- pected. Last fall, during the Moscow Bi- ennale, the Garage brought in a hundred thousand visitors in a month.

“So what’s going on with the event?” she asked, taking a seat at one of the heavy wooden tables on the terrace. Delicately tanned, big-eyed, and full-lipped, Zhukova usually wears an entirely neutral ex- pression reminiscent of an empty tide pool. She says little, letting her lieutenant, a Russian woman named Marina Barber, explain her intentions. When she does speak, it is often in a volley of questions which can seem at odds with her general passivity. She began to grill Chatounovski on arrangements for the private opening, that evening, of three new exhibits. There was a show by AES+F, an important quartet of established Russian artists; a version of a Los Angeles performance piece by Francesco Vezzoli, in which Lady Gaga played a Damien Hirst piano; and a retrospective, imported from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, of semi- nal performance art. There was also a Mark Rothko exhibit, which had opened in the spring—the first time that Rothko had been shown in Moscow.

“How many are confirmed?” Zhukova asked.

Four hundred, all with a plus-one.

“Food?” Perplexed, Chatounovski reminded Zhukova that she had said no food for the event’s after-party, and Barber as- sured her that a formal meal at the opening would be out of place.

Zhukova interrupted. There were too many other things she wanted to know about. She wanted to see the press list, to check on the photographer, to examine the P.R. bill. Then there were the shows themselves, which she had not yet seen. Were they even ready? Chatounovski said they were, but, when she began to describe her impressions, Zhukova cut her off.

“Did we have time to buy beanbags?” she said. In Zhukova’s conception, beanbag chairs would enable visitors to lounge in front of the AES+F exhibit.

“We’re buying them, we’re buying them,” Chatounovski said, but it quicklybecame clear that there was a problem.

“There aren’t any,” Barber said quietly.

“What do you mean, there aren’t any?” Zhukova asked. Chatounovski and Barber steeled themselves for what they knew would follow. They tried to suggest benches, but Zhukova was adamant: “The main thing is that it’s soft.” She had another idea.

“What about the IKEA here in Moscow?” she asked.

Barber said that they were already looking in three IKEAs.

“And in the store there’s not a single beanbag?”

“No.”

Zhukova is the quintessential creature of a new cultural moment. Russian oligarchs are notorious for the manner in which they have spent—and, for that matter, acquired—their fortunes, but, as the country’s economy has matured, the big spenders have, too. Serious philanthropy and arts patronage are on the rise, and it is often women who preside over the building of family legacies. Zhukova’s perspective is naturally international, and she combines energetic socializing with worthy cultural aspirations. Even her look epitomizes a shift in which mere consumption is becoming something subtler and more coded. She is glamorous but discreetly so, a world away from the stereotype of the fur-draped Russian wife— equal parts Donatella Versace and Madame de Pompadour—that circulated in the nineties. Some of these women have approached arts patronage in a perfunctory way, organizing fund-raisers and tossing money around at auctions. But a few, like Zhukova, are transforming the profile of Russia in the art world while also giving Russians new access to the latest currents of the avant-garde. Sometimes this lofty task means thinking of banalities like beanbags and canapés. When I spoke to Zhukova on the terrace, her manicured fingers discovered a forgotten price tag under a placemat. She tore it off and immediately began checking the rest. Her face, hidden behind dinner-plate-size sunglasses streaked with gold, barely rippled.

The Garage is, in fact, a garage. Or, to be precise, it is a former bus depot designed by the Constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov, in 1926. The building, with a distinctive red brick façade, has become an architectural landmark that, through a series of ownership transfers, ended up in the hands of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which wanted to make it into a “tolerance museum.” But there was a fire in 2001, and the depot was gutted and sat vacant until Zhukova discovered it, in 2007.

“It was just this beautiful big building, and they said, ‘We really want to do something cultural here,’” Zhukova explained, as we sat on the terrace. “And I said, ‘Great, well, I have some ideas— give it to me, and I’ll do something cultural.’ ” It may have helped that Abramovich was the chairman of the federation’s board and a major donor. (Zhukova’s mother is Jewish, and her father is “very Christian”; Zhukova, who says she’s “studied a lot of Biblical subjects,” now identifies herself as Jewish.)

Zhukova threw herself into renovating the space. It was difficult and expensive to restore. “The size, the wiring that was here, or the lack thereof. There was nothing—electricity, water, even the basics,” Zhukova said, sipping what she called her “fake coffee,” an herbal energy concoction recommended by her nutri- tionist, which her driver had just fetched from her car. “I think in the span of a year we learned more about consistency of floors, ventilation—I mean, things that I never thought I’d have to learn.”

A year and nearly fifteen million dollars later—in June, 2008—the Garage opened its doors, for a dinner for mem- bers of Zhukova’s set: a beau monde extending from European aristocracy to Jeff Koons. Amy Winehouse entertained the crowd, for a fee of reportedly well over a million dollars. (Zhukova says that the figure was substantially lower.) That September, the Garage opened to the public, with a show by Ilya Kabakov. Known as the godfather of Russian contemporary art, Kabakov had spent the previous twenty years in exile in the United States, and the opening of the Garage was his exuberant homecoming.

Since then, Zhukova has overseen a burgeoning education program, with free lectures, children’s workshops, film screenings, and master classes. She is particularly eager not just to import high-profile shows but also to foster the emergence of a homegrown Moscow art scene. Thus a recent exhibit—“Futurology/Russian Utopias,” which ran simultaneously with the Rothko—encouraged local artists to explore the strong utopian strands in Russian culture. “I guess it’s the mission for the Garage,” Zhukova told me. “It’s to integrate Russian contemporary culture with the international. I definitely see the Garage as an institution that can implement social change in the country. I think we can’t just be bringing things in.”

Zhukova balances her work at the Garage with a number of roles that are, at least potentially, highly demanding. She founded a fashion label and has been appointed editor-in-chief of the edgy, eccentric British fashion magazine Pop. (The magazine’s most recent issue has Britney Spears on its cover, designed in lurid Technicolor by Murakami.) She spends most of her time in London, where she lives with Abramovich and their nine-month-old son. Periodically, she flies to Los Angeles, where she grew up, and Moscow, where she was born and spent her childhood. Because she is so rarely in one place for long, she tends to bookend projects. When choosing art for the Garage, for example, she spots something she likes and then seeks advice from a circle of art-world acquaintances, most notably the American dealer Larry Gagosian, who first nurtured her interest in art. (One of his former curators now works for her.) Zhukova’s connections and wealth enable her to obtain art works that are rarely loaned—like the fragile Rothkos, and works from the collection of the French billionaire François Pinault. She is also able to get them into Russia, past a notoriously unpredictable bureaucracy. Once the art makes it through customs, the Garage’s staff takes charge of installation.

At the final stage, Zhukova moves in and gives the whole project what one might think of as the Dasha aesthetic, generally achieved by a relentless focus on particulars. After surveying the terrace, Zhukova set out to see what her exhibits actually looked like. Surrounded by a cloud of whirring cameras that she made a point of graciously ignoring, she walked through the galleries with Klaus Biesenbach, a MOMA curator who had brought the performance-art show to Moscow. Biesenbach, a German in his forties with close-cropped white hair, talked excitedly, his accented English rising in a series of interrogative loops. He led Zhukova into a darkened rectangular room. Its walls were filled with texts stapled under photographs and with screens showing videos of performance pieces, such as the scratched midriff of a woman slowly spinning a hula hoop made of barbed wire. Biesenbach explained the significance of each piece to Zhukova, taking care to distinguish the merely “brilliant” from the “masterpiece.”

He led Zhukova to a small video screen showing an off-white glob with people wriggling around in it like apple worms. “This is something that I am going to do at MOMA in winter,” he said. But there was a problem: the piece had an audio component, and the speaker wasn’t working. Zhukova, monosyllabically appreciative up to now, saw the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. “But there’s no way to turn it up right now?” she said. Biesenbach went on to explain the significance of the work, which drew its inspiration from the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.
“It’s a Caspar David Friedrich iceberg made out of chalk?” he said, scanning Zhukova’s face for comprehension. “And there are nine little caves? And inside these caves there are trained opera singers, and the trained opera singers sing? The melodies of arias, but they sing political speeches.”

“Right,” Zhukova said. “Well, let’s see what we can do about the speaker.”

After the tour of the MOMA exhibit, Zhukova led Biesenbach around the AES+F one. He praised the show and discussed its installation. Zhukova wanted his opinion on something else.

“We got some beanbags,” she said. “Or do you think that’s too casual?”

Daria Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981, into a well-connected family of scientists, writers, and linguists. “It was the usual, normal Moscow intelligentsia,” her mother, Elena, a molecular biologist, said. Elena met Dasha’s father, Alexander, when the two were students in Moscow. They married, had Dasha, and divorced three years later. In the late nineteen-eighties, after Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed the strictures on private enterprise, Alexander formed an energy trading company, which became one of the industry’s most important. Dasha, meanwhile, had an unremarkable Soviet childhood until 1991, when Elena Zhukova left the country to do research in Houston, taking her ten-year-old daughter with her. Two months later, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Elena decided to stay in the United States.

Alexander’s growing wealth back in Russia helped ease the stresses of immigration. In Texas, Dasha was sent to private school, and her English became so good that she nearly forgot her Russian. She skied, played tennis, acted. Later, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, eventually enrolling at U.C. Santa Barbara, where she majored in Russian literature. Katia McClain, one of her professors, remembers her as a thoughtful student. “Most significant, she was unassuming,” McClain said. “She gave no indication that she came from a very wealthy family.” Zhukova also took premed classes—she wanted to be a pediatrician—but struggled with organic chemistry.

By the time Zhukova graduated, in 2003, she had lost interest in medical school and began to develop an interest in alternative medicine. Elena remembers this as a not especially happy period. “She searched to find herself for a long time,” she recalls. “It was a tumultuous process, and she found her way by trial and error.” By way of salvation, her father invited her to move to London, where he was living. Alexander Zhukov was by then a very wealthy man—with a villa in Sardinia, a jet, and a portfolio of London property. Though most of his money comes from Russian oil, his career has been varied. In 2001, he spent six months in an Italian jail, on suspicion of supplying arms to Serbian forces during the civil war; no charges were filed and he was released.

Zhukova enrolled in London’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, and moved into a penthouse next door to her father’s, in a gated community in Kensington, which had emerged as a glittering enclave of Russian wealth. Zhukova’s life, previously merely privileged, became truly glamorous. She partied with members of the Royal Family and the children of other tycoons. She and a childhood friend back in Los Angeles, Christina Tang, launched a clothing line, calling it Kova & T, for their last names. “The idea came about, honestly, because we wanted a clean pair of jeans at a time when all the jeans were being bedazzled,” Zhukova told me. “You know, why can’t anyone just make them without all the stuff on it?” She shuttled between London and Los Angeles, learning about fabric and distribution and sales. The brand did well—attracting notice for Catwoman-style leggings, which enjoyed a vogue among young Holly- wood celebrities—though Zhukova is no longer directly involved in designing for it.

Zhukova’s life might easily have continued in this vein, but in 2005, after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend, the tennis star Marat Safin, she met Roman Abramovich, on a trip to Russia. At the time, Abramovich was the richest man in Russia. He had got his start while in the Soviet Army, in the mid-eighties, reportedly selling stolen fuel at a markup to officers, before graduating to sell perfume, deodorant, and tights on the black market. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he moved into the newly privatized oil industry, buying at cheap domestic prices and selling abroad. In 1995, in partnership with the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, he began his acquisition of an oil company called Sibneft. The deal was typical of the era: the company had been created by a Kremlin order and handed over to the duo for a farcically low price. At Sibneft, Abramovich ran the business while Berezovsky tirelessly curried favor with President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. When Yeltsin positioned Vladimir Putin to be his successor, in 1999, he did so at Berezovsky’s suggestion, but Putin quickly proved determined to curtail the political power of the oligarchs and made an example of his erstwhile supporter. Berezovsky was forced into exile, in London, and had to sell his share of Sibneft to Abramovich. At the age of thirty-five, Abramovich gained control of one of the biggest oil companies in the world.

Abramovich sold the company, for thirteen billion dollars, in 2005, not long before meeting Zhukova. He was married then, to his second wife, Irina, a former flight attendant whom he had wed in 1991. (The couple had five children.) Soon after meeting Abramovich, Zhukova flew to Barcelona to watch a soccer match with him. Afterward, she was reportedly seen being hustled into a car by his bodyguards and taken to a hotel. The relationship developed behind a wall of spokesmen’s denials—she was “a family friend,” they said—as Zhukova, fourteen years younger than Abramovich, popped up with him in cities across the world and sat in his box at soccer games. (Abramovich, a soccer fanatic, purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003, for two hundred and fifty million dollars.) By October, 2006, Irina was reported to have hired divorce lawyers known in London as Jaws and Mr. Payout. Abramovich’s representatives tried to keep the story a secret, which made the British tabloids all the more determined to play it up. For a while, it seemed that Irina might receive five billion dollars, the biggest settlement in history, but she settled, in a Russian court, for around three hundred million.

Since the relationship’s inauspicious beginnings, the pair has kept a low profile. Abramovich, notoriously press-shy, has found a good partner in Zhukova. She will not discuss how they met, or even whether they are married. In public, the couple barely interact, floating past each other without words or eye contact. Her press corps rivals his in obstructiveness and obfuscation. She gives few interviews, and, when she does, her answers are studies in evasion. When I asked her about her recent art acquisitions—since becoming involved with Zhukova, Abramovich is said to have spent record amounts on paintings by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon—her airy Southern California drawl turned to lead. “I don’t really talk about the collecting,” she said, and then, as if by way of explanation, added, “It’s something that’s quite personal and doesn’t involve just me.” It’s tempting to suppose that such vagueness betrays a neophyte’s lack of confidence, and a wariness about being portrayed as a rich dilettante. But Zhukova’s almost virtuosic uncommunicativeness seems to apply to all areas of her life, and her infinite unquotability has earned her a kind of fame among journalists. At a fashion show, a reporter for Women ’s Wear Daily asked her what she thought of the clothes. Zhukova responded, “I liked them, but that’s off the record.”

“If you want to understand the oligarchs, you really need to think in terms of Napoleonic France,” Irina Prokhorova said, as she sat in a large, sunny office overlooking one of Moscow’s tree-lined boulevards. Prokhorova, a publisher and an academic with a strong grounding in cultural history, is the elder sister of Mikhail Prokhorov, who made a fortune in nickel mining and is now, according to Forbes, Russia’s second-richest man. (Outside Russia, Prokhorov is best known for his recent purchase of the New Jersey Nets.) Irina runs a philanthropic foundation that she started with her brother.

The thing about Napoleon’s reign, Prokhorova explained, was the social vacuum: the blood aristocracy was gone, leaving the country without a natural élite. The epoch’s extravagance was the expression of the desire of a new self-made class to define itself. “These were talented people who rose because of the Revolution, who didn’t have any birthright, nothing. And in this way this glamour, this opulent beauty, this interest in style, was absolutely a product of the Revolution,” Prokhorova said. “The glamour of the Russian nineteen-nineties was the same thing.” In post-Soviet Russia, when the entire economy was transferred from the state to private hands, unimaginable wealth could be made with almost surreal speed. But, after seven decades of poverty and Communism, there was no template for how to spend it. “A lot of talented people from different circumstances rose to prominence, and the only way they could present and legitimatize themselves was to find their own style,” she said. From this came all the clichés of Russian wealth: the baroque excess and theatrical pursuit of luxury.

David Hoffman, who was a reporter in Moscow at the time and later consolidated his impressions in a book, “The Oligarchs,” suggests that the model was not Napoleonic but American. “They came from nothing,” he told me. “They learned their behavior from reading Theodore Dreiser’s ‘The Financier.’ They learned how rich men behave by emulating Western experiences.” The American example may be the key to understanding what happened next: slowly, Russians started to emulate Carnegie and the Rockefellers, who made their money in dirty, unglamorous ways and, in later decades, put it into cultural, scientific, and educational causes. In Russia, as usual, this process has been telescoped. Here, the generation giving back is the generation that first made the money.

Philanthropy in modern Russia started informally, with oligarchs handing out money in their blighted industrial bases. A decade later, the approach has become more systematic, although most oligarchs’ foundations are not endowed, and are instead funded year to year or project to project. But there are a few prominent exceptions. The Prokhorov foundation tries to bring culture to dilapidated industrial towns across Russia. Vladimir Potanin, once Prokhorov’s partner, has become the first Russian oligarch to announce that he is leaving his billions not to his children but to charity. Abramovich, too, has put much of his money into philanthropy; when, in 1999, he was elected governor of the desolate and impoverished Chukotka region, in the Arctic northeast, he began pouring nearly two billion dollars into the region’s infrastructure and economy. He even hired mountain climbers to scale the walls of the gray buildings and paint them in bright, colored patterns that would set them apart from the eternal gray of the landscape.

By the middle of the past decade, oligarchs had also emerged on the world art scene, collecting at record prices. Inevitably, collecting and curating art has also become a fashionable way of obtaining cultural legitimacy. “When Dasha came on the scene, we just thought, Here’s another socialite who decided to do art,” Marat Guelman, a Russian gallerist, told me. “But, when Roman started buying art, people started believing in her, because he is a systematic person. When he starts something, he carries through. She, too, has shown a tremendous focus.” According to Prokhorova, the huge public response to Zhukova’s Garage is not a surprise: innovations in the arts have been severely underfunded for the past two decades—“Everything is needed everywhere”—so that even small investments can have a dramatic impact.

A few days after meeting Zhukova, I visited the art collector Maria Baibakova. She was showing a group of trustees from Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art around her family’s extensive collection, housed in her father’s home in Rublevka, Moscow’s version of Beverly Hills. The daughter of Oleg Baybakov, who serves as Mikhail Prokhorov’s lieutenant and has branched into real estate and development, Masha, as she is known, is in many ways Dasha Zhukova’s direct counterpart. Born in Moscow in 1985, she moved with her mother to America, while her father made his fortune back in Russia. But, unlike Zhukova, she has cultivated expertise in contemporary art. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard, with a degree in art history, before doing a master’s, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London. She spent her college years in New York interning at Sotheby’s and at galleries in Chelsea.

If anyone is to become Russia’s Peggy Guggenheim, it is Baibakova. In 2008, when Zhukova opened the Garage, Baibakova launched a nonprofit gallery, in the old Red October Chocolate Factory, in the center of Moscow. Unlike the Garage, which seeks to introduce a Russian audience to blue-chip contemporary art, Baibakova’s project is more narrowly focussed on emerging artists. Her target audience already knows Damien Hirst and so is ready for Cyprien Gaillard and Thomas Hirschhorn. As one observer of the Russian art scene put it, “Masha can bring in Sterling Ruby because they’ve already seen Koons at the Garage.”

Baibakova’s focus is less mainstream than Zhukova’s Garage, and doesn’t have its rarefied hipness, just as her personality lacks Zhukova’s impenetrable, flattering-mirror sheen. Baibakova is loud, confident, warm. She Tweets. She speaks quickly but eloquently; she is blunt, and does something Zhukova never does in public—complain about Russia. “Here, I am constantly reinventing the wheel,” she groaned over a bottle of Coke, in a basement café near a new exhibition space where she had to move her gallery after Red October raised the rent. (That space has since closed as well.) She began to tell me about her various difficulties—visits from corrupt fire inspectors, the broken mail system, the country’s ingrained sexism, and logjams with bogus bureaucracy. “I had to solve this with vodka because I don’t have the budget or the money for bribes!”

Baibakova’s management style, too, is the opposite of Zhukova’s. Unlike Zhukova, who employs a small army of gallerists and curators, Baibakova works with only a skeleton crew, doing much of the work herself. Partly this is because she doesn’t have Zhukova’s resources: Baibakova’s father is wealthy, but he is not an Abramovich, either in riches or in stature. But Baibakova, who is twenty-five, has still managed to become a serious force on the international art scene. The Guggenheim has hinted that it wants her on its board, and the magazine ARTnews recently included her and her father on a list of the world’s most active and influential art collectors. The only other Russian on the list was Abramovich.

As the well-heeled MOCA trustees milled around the family’s back yard, admiring the food (cooked by Masha’s grandmother) and the art, conversation turned to a comparison of Masha and Dasha. Masha they loved. She knew her art and spoke their open, American language. But they had doubts about Dasha. One curator, asked if she was seen as a serious connoisseur or as a big spender, said, “She’s seen as the wife of a big spender. Artists trust people who trust their instincts, not someone who calls Larry”— Gagosian—“to ask them if it’s right or not. Masha, on the other hand, knows what she’s doing.” Surprisingly, despite Zhukova’s help in organizing a benefit gala for MOCA that raised more than four million dollars for the museum, another member of the delegation asked what she “brought to the table.” Money? “Nope,” he said. “Not even.”

Few people are so dismissive, however. In running the Garage, Zhukova has shown considerable acumen. “Instead of steering it herself, she hires professionals,” Marat Guelman said. Zhukova, recognizing her lack of time and expertise, finds talent and gives the people she picks considerable autonomy. In this, she closely resembles Abramovich. Alexander Voloshin, who was Putin’s first chief of staff, told me, “Abramovich understands people well. He’s not a super-manager. He has one big asset, which is that he is a good judge of character, and he picked people who are capable of managing.”

Even Zhukova’s baffling blankness— her absolute reserve and her apparent fear of saying anything remotely opinionated—usually works in her favor. An older generation of curators and artists, who could easily feel threatened by a rich and influential young woman, unanimously praise her good manners, her modesty, her tact. Others suspect that the impassive exterior masks the will of one who knows how to manipulate people in order to get what she wants, the sort of woman for whom billionaires leave their wives and families. “Dasha is one of the hardest people to read that I’ve ever met,” the art-world observer told me. “It’s not because she’s not smart or passionate about what she’s doing. She’s just the ideal model. She hides her emotions, her passions, though you know it’s there because you see the projects she puts together.” Ultimately, perhaps, Zhukova doesn’t speak much because she understands that her money and connections speak for themselves.

The night of the Garage opening, hundreds of guests wandered through the exhibits. They lounged on the gray velvet couches in the café, and spilled onto the crowded terrace. The beanbags had not arrived, a setback that Zhukova bore with resignation. She had put on a navy wool blazer and a pleated pink miniskirt. There were streaks of blush on her cheeks. She seemed worn down but talked gamely with her guests. She listened to the wife of a flamboyant Russian designer chatter about their daughter’s schooling abroad. She hugged one of the Old Guard curators who had helped her organize the inaugural Garage exhibit. Periodically, she collapsed onto the gray couches, looking like a sullen child, and searched her purse for a pack of cigarettes. (Abramovich dis- approves of the habit, and Zhukova denies that she smokes.) She was tired of having a reporter follow her around all day. “Do you always have to have that tape recorder out?” she asked. She developed a makeshift way of going off the record, covering her mouth and whispering to her friends. Masha Baibakova arrived and bouncily congratulated her on the opening. Zhukova said something cool and polite but didn’t get up.

On the terrace, under the umbrellas, artists wearing big necklaces and strange eyeglasses mingled with bored-looking, stick-thin women. Inside, others filed past the AES+F exhibit. Titled “The Feast of Trimalchio,” it was a display of photographs and animations inspired by Petronius’ “Satyricon,” in which Trimalchio, a self-made man, hosts an obscenely lavish dinner party. As he becomes increasingly drunk, he tells his guests—the nouveaux riches of Nero’s Rome—about a grandiose tomb he has planned for himself and then gets to act out his funeral. The AES+F prints were a burlesque of fashion photography, crowded with absurdly dressed models twisted into exaggerated poses of domination and servitude. The notes accompanying the exhibit claimed that it would “envelop visitors in a temporary hotel paradise, where they can enjoy the excesses of wealth, luxury and gluttony.” In a context in which so many of the guests inhabit “a temporary hotel paradise” as a matter of course, the exhibit took on an eeriness that may not have been entirely unintentional.

On the terrace, the canapés had run out, and people stood tightly packed, swirling their drinks and nibbling on bread sticks that grew out of vases like post-apocalyptic cacti. Waiters jostled through the crowd and converged on a particular table, putting down place settings, bottles of wine, and plates of food. People stared at the table. Eventually, surrounded by a gaggle of friends, Abramovich strode onto the terrace, dressed in jeans and a navy blazer with an open-collared white shirt. He looked around. The table was ready. He sat down, and his friends did, too, oblivious of the casual, democratic ethos of the evening. As the crowd looked on, they laughed, and poured wine for one an- other, forked cheese and cured meats onto one another’s plates.

At one point in the evening, I came across Abramovich as he wandered into the room with the MOMA exhibit. He walked slowly around, chewing on gum and staring blankly at the works. When I approached him and mentioned that I was writing about Zhukova, she leaped up from a nearby sofa and sprinted over on six-inch Louboutin heels. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” she said to Abramovich, in Russian, and, grabbing him by the arm, led him quickly across the room and out the door.

Garage Mechanics [TNY]

Moscow’s Mayor Daley

Friday, September 17th, 2010

There are lots of stories in the news in Moscow today — a crime boss gunned down in the center of town, Poland playing good neighbor and arresting the emissary of the Chechen separtists in exile, a disappeared gay activist. There are no stories, however, about Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

The silence is ominous, given that since last weekend, the Russian media — including state television — has been able to talk of nothing else. On Saturday and Sunday, Muscovites turning on their televisions were surprised to discover a series of exposés attacking a mayor who has long been one of the Russian state’s untouchable saints. And now there it was, all the evidence of his sins, set to threatening music, showcasing his wife’s crookedly financed construction projects, his lieutenants’ Swiss watch collections, him grinning madly next to his beehives. Because this ran on channels owned and tightly guarded by the state, it was clear that the material had come from the highest echelons of power. It was a Kremlin smear campaign the likes of which the city has not seen since the 1990s. For a week, as the Kremlin and Luzhkov dueled in public, Moscow finally got to see some real politics as the battles usually confined to secret corridors herniated into the mass media. And then the news just stopped.

What happened? The story, after all, has not gone away, and, in the battle’s aftermath, neither has Luzhkov, who has held on to his mayoral throne for 18 years with both hands and all 26 teeth.

It’s hard to describe exactly what Yuri Luzhkov is. He is the only mayor Moscow has ever really known in the post-Soviet period, a figure whose control extends into every corner of the city’s life. He is Moscow’s boss, which is precisely the problem: There can only be one boss in Moscow, and his name is Vladimir Putin.

And here’s the other side of that problem: Luzhkov has been in charge since before Vladimir Vladimirovich even thought of going into politics, and well before he got to Moscow. Luzhkov, on the other hand, has been helping run the city since the Soviet era. He started off as the reformist head of the Moscow city council during the perestroika years, and was appointed mayor by then President Boris Yeltsin in June 1992. But as Luzhkov brought the chaotic capital to order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was also put in charge of privatizing huge swaths of Moscow property — making his real-estate developer wife (and former city council assistant 27 years his junior), Elena Baturina, Russia’s wealthiest woman in the process.

As mayor, Luzhkov created a vast and complex network of management that answered directly to him, leading many critics to compare him to Boss Tweed, the 19th-century kingpin who ruled New York as his private fiefdom. This made him extremely hard to replace. Luzhkov soon became a center of political power so potent that he was able to unify other Russian regional chiefs under his banner in the 1999 parliamentary elections. But this put him in direct competition with Putin, Yeltsin’s anointed successor, and the Kremlin and its oligarchs waged an aggressive media campaign against him — one that looked remarkably like the one Moscow saw this week. After Luzhkov’s bloc was soundly defeated, though, he was brought into the fold of Putin’s new party, endorsed the former KGB colonel for president in 2000, and allowed to keep control of his city, which collected more and more of the country’s ballooning wealth.*

As Putin consolidated his hold over Russia’s political system, Luzhkov’s personal kingdom became a constant irritant to the Kremlin. He was never ousted, however: if he supported Putin politically, he could keep his mayoral seat — and the riches it allowed him to tap.

Luzhkov, now 73, has also become increasingly eccentric with age, provoking controversies like his 2002 proposal to restore the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, in front of FSB headquarters. (The statue’s toppling in 1991 was a massively symbolic moment in the demise of the Soviet Union.) He has violently cracked down on gay pride parades, calling them “satanic,” which has made him a persona non grata in many European capitals. Last spring, he announced that he would mark the 65th anniversary of Russia’s victory in World War II by festooning the capital with portraits of Joseph Stalin. (The plan was scrapped amid public outcry.)

So it’s no surprise that Luzhkov is finally about to go. President Dmitri Medvedev has been pushing the stodgy, unresponsive old guard of regional government into retirement since the beginning of his term. It is an attempt to head off discontent — and any potential sabotage in the upcoming parliamentary elections. But Luzhkov has ignored what was becoming obvious to everyone: his time was up. “They hinted and hinted, hinted and hinted, and he just wouldn’t leave,” says Robert Shlegel, a parliamentary deputy from United Russia.

Luzhkov’s most recent trouble, according to Russian political insiders, began when he over-delivered votes in the regional elections last October. The fraud was so blatant and crude that it precipitated a week-long political crisis that lead many to question the Kremlin’s hold on a power vertical of its own making. But the final straw came when he decided to play Putin and Medvedev off each other, saying that, while one criticized him, one approved of his performance. “In our Russian bureaucracy, trying to split the tandem is the deadly sin,” says Aleksey Chadaev, the young new head of United Russia’s political strategy.

And so the Kremlin again put on its brass knuckles, the same ones it used on Luzhkov back in 1999: television. Last Saturday’s anti-Luzhkov special even featured notorious media assassin Sergei Dorenko, a veteran of the 1999 campaign. This time, he accosted the mayor for refusing to return from his Austrian vacation as Moscow filled with toxic smoke from the August wildfires, sending the city’s death rates through the roof. Luzhkov, Dorenko said, was too busy enjoying Austria, where “everything was just wonderful: cows with bells, girls with tits.”

The NTV special, was followed in quick succession by two others, including one on Channel 1, Russia’s main state channel. Here’s a partial list of all the — alleged — dirt the segments aired: Luzhkov granted his wife’s company, Inteko, lucrative tax breaks; he forced people from their homes — or burned them when they refused to move — in order to make room for Baturina’s housing developments; when Luzhkov did return from his Austrian vacation, he spent nearly twice as much money on his prized honey bees than on Muscovites made ill by the smoke; he inflated the cost of restoring an iconic Soviet statue and gave the contract to – who else? — his wife.

When the segments first aired, Luzhkov remained atypically quiet. Finally, on Monday night, a reporter from the vaguely oppositional REN-TV caught him off guard at a completely unrelated event honoring the memory of a long-deceased Soviet journalist and asked for an impromptu interview. But the mayor refused to respond to any of the attacks. “Explaining oneself is not the way to defend oneself in Russia,” he said. “If a person starts explaining himself, it means he is guilty.”

So instead of explaining himself, Luzhkov went on the offensive. On Wednesday, when a a group of United Russia delegates gathered in Moscow for a regional conference, Luzhkov delivered a rousing speech on his successes as mayor. The media war raging outside? “It’s all slander,” he said, before addressing a particularly sore spot. “They say that the mayor decided to allocate money to his little bees,” he said. “I can tell everyone, and many know this, yes, I am into beekeeping. I find it interesting. It’s a philosophy. It’s a unique philosophy of the life of a family, of the life of the society of bees. But I don’t need government funds for this. On the contrary, the entire produce of my hives, of my bees I send to orphanages.” Luzhkov got a standing ovation from his foot soldiers in the Moscow delegation, a clear upping of the ante.

Luzhov has also taken legal redress, convincing the Moscow city Duma to approve a resolution in his support and filing lawsuits against various press outlets that ran with the corruption story. He announced that there was no resigning until his term ran out in June 2011. Finally, in a painfully impotent defiance, Luzhkov announced that if the Kremlin gets its wish and forces him out, he won’t deliver the votes they need in next fall’s parliamentary elections. The Kremlin answered by reminding him publicly that the President could fire him at will.

Notably, Luzhkov has said nothing to the people whose votes he is attempting to hold over the Kremlin’s head, his more than 10 million constituents. It’s not clear they would listen. This is a group that barely votes and has not thought highly of its mayor for a long time now; in the last decade, his approval rating has fallen by almost half. They know he steals, they know his wife steals, they know that he does not have their interests at heart, but they cannot do anything about it. Luzhkov, like every other regional boss, has been appointed by the Kremlin since 2004.

So now what? Luzhkov’s days are clearly numbered. A fight like the one that just unfolded is not one that the Kremlin can be seen to lose, which means that Luzhkov has to step down. The Kremlin cannot simply fire him because the Luzhkov machine, woven together not only by money but by family times, is still alive and well, and the state needs it on its side. Making an enemy of Luzhkov and his army would be a disaster, especially when it comes time to vote next fall. And now that the stakes have been upped, it means that the story has moved back to the corridors where it belongs. Rest assured, heated negotiations for a political golden parachute are keeping everyone who matters in Moscow working through the weekend. And, in case Luzhkov insists on playing hardball, NTV has announced it will air another installment of Luzhkovgate on Saturday.

Inevitably, though, a compromise will be hammered out and Luzhkov will announce, with the sweet melancholy of an elderly public servant cleaning out his desk, that he has decided to spend more time with his family. The fact that the media noise is dying down means that day is very close. This, after all, is Putin’s style: Wait for the scandal to be forgotten, and then make your move, thereby avoiding the appearance that you caved to pressure.

Luzhkov will not be fired — that would also be out of character for Medvedev, who has only booted a handful of governors, though he certainly has the legal power to do so. Luzhkov will step down, politicians and political watchers here say, as soon as everything quiets down.

And there’s another thing to consider: “His birthday is the 21st [of September],” Chadaev told me. “It would be a shame to spoil such a day.”

Moscow’s Mayor Daley [FP]

What is Russia Today?

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

On Election Day 2008, two African-American men in black fatigues and berets stood outside a polling station in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia. They were members of the New Black Panther Party, which the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have labeled a hate group. One of the men wielded a police-style nightstick, and there were complaints about voter intimidation. Police eventually escorted the armed man away without incident, but the outgoing Bush administration filed a civil suit against the party alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In May 2009, against the advice of prosecutors who had worked on the case, President Obama’s Justice Department dropped the suit, a move that caused barely a ripple in the press at the time. The case came back to life in July, though, when a former Justice Department lawyer testified before the Commission on Civil Rights that the case was dropped because the Justice Department did not want to protect the civil rights of white people.

Fox News began to air allegations of an anti-white bias at the Obama Justice Department. But almost no one else reported on the case—it was old, tenuous, and even a prominent conservative commenter called it “small potatoes.” One outlet that did pick up the story, however, was Russia Today, a fairly new and still mostly obscure English-language cable news channel funded by the Russian government.

Russia Today was conceived as a soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad, to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media. Since its founding in 2005, however, the broadcast outlet has become better known as an extension of former President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational foreign policy. Too often the channel was provocative just for the sake of being provocative. It featured fringe-dwelling “experts,” like the Russian historian who predicted the imminent dissolution of the United States; broadcast bombastic speeches by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; aired ads conflating Barack Obama with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and ran out-of-nowhere reports on the homeless in America. Often, it seemed that Russia Today was just a way to stick it to the U.S. from behind the façade of legitimate newsgathering.

So it was fairly unremarkable when Russia Today, in a July 8 segment called “Fox News stirring up racial fears in America,” interviewed the chairman of the New Black Panther Party, Dr. Malik Zulu Shabazz, who lambasted Republicans for playing on people’s fears in an effort to dominate the fall midterm elections.

But then Russia Today did something out of character. When Fox’s Glenn Beck attacked the segment, asking why Russian state-run TV was suddenly “in lock-step” with the Obama administration, Russia Today fired back in a way that was puzzling to anyone familiar with the channel. On July 9, Alyona Minkovski, who hosts a daily program called The Alyona Show, laid into Beck—“the doughboy nut job from Fox News”—with patriotic American fervor: “I get to ask all the questions that the American people want answered about their own country because I care about this country and I don’t work for a corporate-owned media organization,” she said, her voice rising.

Fox …you hate Americans. Glenn Beck, you hate Americans. Because you lie to them, you scare them, you try to warp their minds. You tell them that we’re becoming some socialist country…. You’re not on the side of America. And the fact that my channel is more honest with the American people is something you should be ashamed of.
Huh? Forget the Obama administration, since when does Russia Today defend the policies of any American president? Or the informational needs of the American public, for that matter? Like many of RT’s journalists, Minkovksi is a Russian immigrant, born in Moscow, raised and educated in the West, and hired by the network for her fluency in both English and Russian—she is someone who could be both Russia’s ambassador to the West as well as its Sherpa into the Western mind. But her tirade against Fox offers a glimpse into the mind of a changing Russia Today.

On April 25, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on national television and told his nation that the destruction of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He meant that the union’s dissolution had ushered in years of sinusoidal financial crises, but also that he mourned the passing glory of a great empire he had once served as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB. In the speech, Putin also expressed his hope that Russia would become a “free and democratic country,” but at its own pace. “Russia will decide for itself the pace, terms, and conditions of moving towards democracy,” he said, laying the foundation for a political creed that would become known as “sovereign democracy.” It is a phrase that became shorthand for what the West called Russia’s “resurgence,” and what Russia called its independence of an externally imposed Western morality.

Putin could do this because in 2005 things were going well. Oil prices were rising—they had more than doubled since he became president in 2000—and the Russian people were increasingly behind him and his brand of paternalistic nationalism. But with the return of Russia’s pride, so wounded during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s reputation suffered as Western and domestic critics attacked Putin for the steady degradation of democracy on his watch. Gubernatorial elections were eliminated, potential rivals—oligarchs like media king Vladimir Gusinsky and oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—were either driven from the country or unceremoniously locked up. Unsympathetic journalists were turning up dead.

Just over a month after the speech, the Kremlin announced the solution to its image problem. It would not change its defiant rhetoric of exceptionalism. Instead, it would launch a new international television channel that explained its actions—and its terms—to the rest of the world. It would be in English and would broadcast twenty-four hours a day.

Though the project had roots in the cold war-era “Radio Moscow,” which beamed news from the Soviet Union around the world, it is better explained by Putin’s obsession with television. As a child of the post-World War II generation, Putin, like his Western counterparts, was raised on it. As president, he took tapes of the day’s news broadcasts home to watch and analyze how he was covered. To Putin, television was the only way to get his message across while retaining full control of that message. One of his first moves as president was to force out the oligarchs running the independent television stations and bring their channels under state ownership—and censorship. Soon, the heads of television stations were meeting every Friday with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political strategist, to set the agenda for the coming week. The instincts of self-censorship took care of the rest.

But even with internal critics effectively marginalized, the external enemies remained. Moreover, they were the same ones who sat in their air-conditioned Washington think tanks and applauded the series of revolutions that replaced Russia-friendly rulers in the former Soviet territories with pro-Western leaders who wanted to do things like join NATO, which Russia considers its biggest military threat to this day.

On June 7, 2005, Margarita Simonyan held a press conference in which she announced the creation of Russia Today. “It will be a perspective on the world from Russia,” she told reporters. “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.”

The new channel would be nonprofit and run out of the headquarters of RIA Novosti, the state news agency. Despite having a large degree of autonomy, it would ultimately answer directly to its funder, the Kremlin. Simonyan, who was hired to run the news outlet, had just turned twenty-five. “Of course, I was nervous,” she wrote in response to questions from cjr. “It’s a tremendous responsibility.”

Simonyan’s story is in many ways typical of a young person in Moscow today. An ethnic Armenian born in Krasnodar, the southern Russian region abutting the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Simonyan comes from a blue-collar family. Her father was a refrigerator repairman, her mother stayed at home. “My parents have nothing to do with television,” Simonyan says. “Yet, even before I went to school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t even understand fully what the word meant.”

Like many of her generation, Simonyan started her career at a young age. After doing stories for the local newspaper, she was hired at eighteen to work at a local television station while studying journalism full-time at nearby Kuban University. This arrangement, repeated by students across the country who have any amount of ambition, is especially common in fields that did not exist in the Soviet era, like advertising, finance, and media, in which there is still a huge personnel vacuum. Moreover, these are fields for which Russian universities, still not fully up to speed, cannot adequately prepare them. Many of these ambitious “provincials” eventually come to Moscow, where as hungry outsiders they quickly outpace their less-driven Muscovite peers.

By 2004, then, twenty-four-year-old Simonyan was already in Moscow and working as a correspondent in the Kremlin press pool for Rossiya, the number two state television network with an audience of 50 million. To be picked for the Kremlin press pool is an honor but also a sign of trustworthiness. The pool is a place for the most loyal of the loyalists. To be assigned to cover the Russian president, especially for television, a reporter has to be absolutely reliable in his docility, and in his ability to ask softball questions. A year later, RIA Novosti tapped Simonyan to head Russia Today.

After three months of around-the-clock rehearsal, Russia Today went live on December 10, 2005. The format, which has changed little in five years, began with a half-hour news block at the top of the hour, followed by features—culture, sports, business—in the bottom half. Three satellites beamed stories to Europe and the United States. Mostly, it was news about Russia, but there also were frequent reports about how badly the war in Iraq was going for George W. Bush, or how deeply Ukrainians and Georgians regretted their revolutions. There also were the more extreme features that would come to define Russia Today in the West, such as the prophesies of fringe authors who predicted a 55 percent chance of civil war and the dissolution of the United States into six distinct territories by July 2010.

From the start, Simonyan presided over a staff that wasn’t much older than she was, and today the network still has the feel of a high school newspaper with more money and considerably higher stakes. “We look for young people and educate them on the job,” says twenty-nine-year-old Irakly Gachechiladze, Russia Today’s news director. Native-level English is a must for presenters (in high school, Simonyan spent a year on an exchange program in Bristol, New Hampshire), and early on the network had a predilection for posh British accents. Brits made up the vast majority of the initial seventy-two foreigners RT recruited, through advertisements in The Guardian and other British papers.

Most of the foreigners were quite green. They were typically just out of one-year journalism graduate programs and had little practical experience. They were aggressively wooed, with a package that included health insurance, free housing, and hands-on experience that would have been impossible with the entry-level jobs available to them at home. And the money was good; foreign hires with little to no experience were paid in the low six figures for working five days out of every fourteen.

For many, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “They put me in a correspondent shift right away,” says one former Russia Today presenter whose contract did not allow her to speak on the record. “Within the first week, I was sent to several locations in Russia. I had just graduated with a master’s in journalism and I was super eager to get my feet wet.” It was an exciting place to work. “There were lots of young people,” the former staffer says. “The mood was very eager, very fun. It had a real start-up feel to it.”

But despite the network’s favored status at home, Russia Today attracted little attention abroad, where it had to compete with behemoths like BBC and Al Jazeera, whose budgets dwarfed RT’s. (The channel’s budget was just $30 million the first year, but it grew in subsequent years before taking a hit during the global economic crisis that began in 2008. RT officials won’t provide specifics on the current budget, but the Kremlin has announced that it intends to spend $1.4 billion this year on international propaganda.) Beyond its budgetary limitations, there are the strictures of loosely defined Kremlin dogma. “On one hand, Russia Today is supposed to compete with Xinhua and Al Jazeera,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “On the other hand, it has to show a positive image of Russia, and, if you’re competing with Al Jazeera, this second function gets in the way.” In other words, to compete in the global news arena, even against outlets with a clear point of view, you need to be taken seriously.

“We got it right. We are the only ones who got it right,” says Peter Lavelle, the host of CrossTalk, RT’s version of Crossfire. “For months, we had been covering the border, and the day Saakashvili started the war the world woke up.”

Lavelle is sitting on a shaded bench in the courtyard of the RIA headquarters, smoking a Camel as some colleagues play ping-pong and bounce on a trampoline behind him. Hired by Russia Today in 2005, Lavelle spent over a decade living in Poland before moving to Russia in 1997. “I didn’t like it at first, it was a mess,” he says. But he stayed, becoming a vocal defender of Russia against critics around the world. He hasn’t been to the U.S. since 2001 because, he says, “I have had no reason.”

In the courtyard, Lavelle is talking about the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When the fighting started, the Russian military and foreign ministry closed ranks and, drawing on lessons from the second Chechen war, barred foreign reporters from entering the war zone. Commentary from Russian government sources was sparse. Meanwhile, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was ubiquitous, finding time to speak to every Western press outlet (his personal mobile number was widely circulated among journalists) and even to hold a joint press conference with then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The result was Western coverage that portrayed the Russians as autocratic aggressors against a weak, democratic Georgia. For the Russians, who insist that the Georgians fired the opening salvo, it was precisely the kind of anti-Russian reporting by the world’s press that Russia Today was created to counteract. A European Union report, issued more than a year after the war ended, lent some credence to the Russian complaint, stating that, while the Russians went too far in their response, the Georgians had “started an unjustified war.” By that point, though, the world’s attention had shifted elsewhere and the Russians’ sense of injustice remained.

The Ossetian War, as it’s known here, was Russia Today’s crucible. Especially in the first days of the conflict, when information was patchy and unreliable. RT became exactly what it set out to be: a source of information for the West about what the Russian position actually was. Moreover, it was the only press outlet available to a Western audience that had access to the Russian side of the fighting. The numbers reflected this advantage. According to RT, viewership reached almost 15 million and views of RT broadcasts on YouTube quickly clicked past the one million mark. To this day, RT sees the war as the event that best showcased its abilities as a news organization, and that made it a recognizable brand in the West.

But RT’s war coverage was at least as shrill and one-sided as anything the Western press produced. And this, according to people who worked for RT at the time, was a conscious choice. “RT sees it as a triumph, but RT went into a war. It was a P.R. war,” says another former RT correspondent who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Staff members were recently compelled to sign papers that barred them from speaking to the press.) “We were told, ‘Look at CNN, look at BBC. They’ve already taken a bias and we have the right to do the same.’ There was no room for questioning, for doubt.”

Russia Today correspondents in Ossetia found that much of their information was being fed to them from Moscow, whether it corresponded to what they saw on the ground or not. Reporters who tried to broadcast anything outside the boundaries that Moscow had carefully delineated were punished. William Dunbar, a young RT correspondent in Georgia, did a phone interview with the Moscow studio in which he mentioned that he was hearing unconfirmed reports that Russia had bombed undisputed Georgian territory. After the interview, he “rushed to the studio to do a live update via satellite,” he says. “I had been told I would be doing live updates every hour that day. I got a call from the newsroom telling me the live updates had been cancelled. They said, ‘We don’t need you, go home.’ ” Another correspondent, whose reporting departed from the Kremlin line that Georgians were slaughtering unarmed Ossetians, was summoned to the office of the deputy editor in chief in Moscow, where they went over the segment’s script line by line. “He had a gun on his desk,” the correspondent says. Even those who were not reprimanded—and were otherwise believers in RT’s mission—were uncomfortable with the heavy-handed message control. Irakly Gachechiladze, an ethnic Georgian born in Moscow, had recently been appointed news director when the war began. Despite his staunch loyalty to the channel’s official line, he says he was uneasy. “It was not a happy time, obviously,” he told me when we met in his office. It was the biggest story anyone there had ever covered, but Gachechiladze politely bowed out. “I packed for the vacation that I had planned a long time in advance, and I left. When I came back, the war was over.”

Sophie Shevardnadze, the daughter of Georgia’s second president who has a political interview show on RT, took a leave of absence rather than report negatively about her fellow Georgians. “I didn’t go to work for three and a half months,” she says. “I took unpaid leave and I wasn’t even sure if I was going back.” The leave was, she says, her editors’ proposal. “I had to be on air on the ninth”—the third day of the fighting—“and they called me and they were like, you don’t have to do that.”

This kind of message control, though rare and targeted to highly sensitive issues, is not exclusive to coverage of the war. The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon and Putin rival, is another example. When an RT reporter took a more balanced approach to covering the trial than RT’s previous dispatches, Gachechiladze told the reporter that he was “not playing for the team.” “He asked me, ‘Why are you still working for this channel?’ ” the reporter told me. (RT officials deny that this exchange took place.) Another correspondent who pitched a story about the aids epidemic in Russia—a taboo topic here—was told it was not a “nice” story and was sent to cover a flower show instead.

Usually, though, the Kremlin line is enforced the way it is everywhere else in Russian television: by the reporters and editors themselves. “There is no censorship per se,” says another RT reporter. “But there are a lot of young people at the channel, a lot of self-starters who are eager to please the management. You can easily guess what the Kremlin wants the world to know, so you change your coverage.”

Another criticism often leveled at RT is that in striving to bring the West an alternate point of view, it is forced to talk to marginal, offensive, and often irrelevant figures who can take positions bordering on the absurd. In March, for instance, RT dedicated a twelve-minute interview to Hank Albarelli, a self-described American “historian” who claims that the CIA is testing dangerous drugs on unwitting civilians. After an earthquake ravaged Haiti earlier this year, RT turned for commentary to Carl Dix, a representative of the American Revolutionary Communist Party, who appeared on air wearing a Mao cap. On a recent episode of Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, the guests themselves berated Lavelle for saying that the 9/11 terrorists were not fundamentalists. (The “Truther” claim that 9/11 was an inside job makes a frequent appearance on the channel, though Putin was the first to phone in his condolences to President Bush in 2001.) “I like being counterintuitive,” Lavelle told me. “Being mainstream has been very dangerous for the West.”

This oppositional point of view was especially clear when RT rolled out a series of ads in the U.K. that featured images of Obama and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” or conflated pictures of a polar bear and an alien next to the text: “Climate Change: Science fact or science fiction?” (U.S. airports banned the ads until RT devised more politically correct versions; the original ads, meanwhile, won awards in the U.S. and the U.K.)

Coverage and stunts like these have given RT a bad reputation, especially among other Western journalists working in Russia who see RT not as journalism from the other side’s trenches, but as nothing more than Kremlin propaganda. Lavelle sneers at what he sees as supreme naiveté. “The paymaster determines a lot,” he says. “Are you telling me Murdoch doesn’t control the editorial line of his publications? No one can escape who pays for what.” He says he avoids contact with his Western colleagues in Moscow, who are, in turn, supremely contemptuous of most anyone who works for RT. “I am proud of my work,” Lavelle told me defiantly.

The younger members of the RT staff, however, are more pragmatic about the potential conflict—whether internal, ideological, or, down the line, professional—of working for RT. The ones who felt it compromised their careers have left; the rest choose to remove lofty ideals like objectivity from the equation. “Maybe people watch us like a freak show,” Shevardnadze told me, “but I’ve never been even slightly embarrassed. This point of view has a right to exist. We don’t have the pretension of being like CNN, or being as good as bbc, because we’re not. You may totally disagree with what we’re doing, and it’s meant to be that way.” She adds, with a touch of exasperation, “It’s a job. They pay you for it.”

In planning an elaborate and expensive image campaign, the Kremlin did not count on a global economic meltdown. A month after the war in Georgia, after a summer of dizzying oil prices, everything fell apart. Russia was among the worst hit of the G20 nations, and its GDP went from an 8.1 percent annual growth rate in 2007 to negative 7.9 percent in 2009. The price of oil plummeted, as did the prices of other commodities, such as nickel, aluminum, and steel—segments that funded two-thirds of the Russian federal budget. The crisis came as a massive shock to the Kremlin, and a group of liberals inside the administration of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev began to push for economic diversification away from dependence on volatile natural resources. But this meant deep budget cuts—including for RT—and, simultaneously, heavy investment in infrastructure, education, and start-ups, all at a time when the Kremlin was suddenly strapped for cash, its reserves significantly depleted after providing industry with a massive bailout.

To fill those gaps, Russia had to woo back international investors who ran for the hills when the fighting broke out in Ossetia. They had to be shown not a resurgent Russia with Soviet overtones, as RT portrayed it, but a reasonable, modern country that behaves rationally. It was, above all, a sales pitch, and a recognition that Russia’s conversation with the world was a dialogue, not a monologue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bearing an olive branch from the new administration in the form of a large, red “reset” button, could not have shown up at a better time (even if the Americans used the wrong Russian word for “reset,” touching off a gleeful round of mockery in the local press). It was March 2009, less than two months after Barack Obama had been sworn into office, promising a different approach toward Russia, one based not on lectures but dialogue. This was an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin: the United States had come to it before it had to go begging. Which is why, after some obligatory chest pounding and naysaying, Moscow began to respond to Washington’s overtures, cooperating on initiatives like renewing the start treaty and backing the U.S. on new sanctions against Iran.

Russia Today’s coverage has closely mirrored this shift. It has become more international and less anti-American (there are fewer stories about America’s social ills, for instance). It even abruptly changed its logo from Russia Today to the less binding “RT,” and built a state-of-the-art studio and newsroom in Washington, D.C. From there it beams original content about American politics and society under its new, more journalistic “Question More” banner. Most significantly, coverage of big Russian-American issues hews closely to the Kremlin’s new tone. This was evident in the treatment of the recent spy scandal. “We focused on why it is such a big media campaign, we brought on experts to talk about why and how spying happens,” says Gachechiladze, the news director. “We talked about the invisible ink. There are a lot of very colorful details. It was a classic spy story.” No outrage at the arrest and deportation of Russian citizens, no incredulity at the accusations that Russia was spying on the U.S., just the colorful details, as if the biggest spy swap since the cold war was nothing more than a Hollywood blockbuster. Which, of course, is exactly how Moscow and Washington wanted it.

Simonyan, however, insists that nothing’s changed: “Our goal is still to provide unbiased information about Russia to the rest of the world, to report about our country.”

But something has changed, and it is explained not only by the Russo-American détente, but also by the fact that RT’s ambitions have grown. It now boasts a staff of 2,000, wider distribution than ever, and channels in Arabic and Spanish. It has learned to pitch the Kremlin’s line in a more subtle way. RT is also evincing a certain confidence these days. It has shed much of its foreign staff, and newsroom meetings are now conducted in Russian. There are hints of a broader, if uneven, move toward seriousness and professionalism.

Clearly, the Russia-U.S. “reset” is a game-changer for Russia Today, a fact that was aptly expressed in Alyona Minkovski’s diatribe against Glenn Beck. The mission of broadcasting Russia’s line to the world was always reminiscent of the old Brezhnev-era foreign policy, when the Soviet Union projected influence either in places America had overlooked, or where America was hated. In other words, it often wasn’t about the Soviet Union at all, just as this new effort to project influence isn’t necessarily about Russia. Both were about using a common enemy to deflect attention from Russia’s own problems, and to gain leverage abroad. This can be effective, until you talk your way into a corner. Now that America is no longer necessarily the enemy, this is exactly what has happened.

For Russia Today—for RT—it raises a pressing question: is there even a point anymore? Increasingly, it is hard to watch RT and not get the sense that the people making the decisions are wrestling with that very question. Even though Russia’s relationship with the U.S. will surely have its ups and downs in the coming years, it’s unlikely there will be a need for the kind of shrill propaganda outlet that RT has been. So, then, who is RT’s target audience? Unlike the Chinese international networks that are tapping into the burgeoning business interest in China, as well as into a large Chinese diaspora, or Al Jazeera, which broadcasts to a broader Islamic universe, Russia can claim neither of these footholds. On the contrary, Russia is still desperately trying to fend off stereotypes of itself—the endemic corruption, the whimsical autocracy of the state—that have kept much foreign capital, and many Russian émigrés, from returning.

But here is the most fundamental problem with Russia’s clever attempt to flex its soft power: the Soviet period excepted, Russia has traditionally been a country that has made itself a player on the world stage by insisting on its own importance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no ideology to propagate. There is no Islam, no Chinese Communism, no beacon of democracy, no Coca-Cola or MTV to smooth the way for political influence. And in terms of cultural influence, Russia has a mixed bag. Despite its rich and broad cultural contribution (Nabokov, the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky), Russia balks at, and actively fights, other key aspects of its culture: the vodka, the winter, the women. When there’s nothing for the propaganda channel to propagate, RT’s message becomes a slightly schizophrenic, ad hoc effort to push back against what comes out of the West. And if there’s nothing to push back against, other than the ghosts of a bygone era, then what, really, is left to say that others aren’t already saying, and saying better? 

What is Russia Today? [CJR]